Add new Blog

10 May 2017

Reflections on the Evolution of RDA

This is a fleshed out version of my speaking notes for the talk I gave at Plenary 9 in Barcelona entitled “Three and a half years in fifteen minutes”.

If you want to see how it actually came out with all the emotion, stuttering, and arm waving, you can watch the recording.

Here’s a simpler text version:

Before I begin, I’d also like to say thanks to John Wood. We have been early collaborators in this RDA adventure. We have very contrasting styles, but I’ve learned a lot from John. There are two quotes from John that will continue to resonate with me for a long time.

First, “Just get on with it”. That was John’s response to most any significant problem. It was very helpful. It helped create a “can do” spirit within RDA.

Second, “Don’t regulate what you don’t understand.” This was a recommendation in the Harvesting the Fruits???” report. I think this is really important at all levels. From routine RDA management to high level international policy, it reminds us not to worry too much.

Thank you John for your laissez faire wisdom and gentle guidance.

I have had the opportunity to stand before you and offer some reflections on where RDA is going since P5 back in San Diego. It has been an absolute honor and privilege to have this bully pulpit, and I get incredibly nervous each time. I’m always thinking about what I’m going to say until the last minute.

I think it’s rather silly that I should have any honor. I was just handed a herd of congenial, galloping horses. I might suggest an occasional steer, but the horses gallop on. There’s an underlying “it will work out” philosophy in RDA that keeps us moving forward.

I was asked to talk about “Three and a half years in 15 minutes”. 

We mark time in RDA by Plenaries, and I’ve attended them all. (Naively taking on the SG Job right before P3.). So let me use the Plenaries as an outline to show how we’ve evolved and matured. 

Our first Plenary was in Gothenburg, Sweden way back in March 2013. We were talking in the Secretariat about which was our favorite Plenary and agreed you couldn’t really have a favorite. It’s sort of like having a favorite child. But I think P1 may have been my favorite. There was just so much energy and desire to do something. 

We were very much still figuring it out. The concept of Interest Groups didn’t exist yet, but the community said we need Interest Groups, and so they were born — A first step, really, at recognizing that there were social not just technical issues to address. 

For P2 we went to Washington, DC. It was held at the National Academy of Sciences, which is really a beautiful building. The National Academy was established by Abraham Lincoln (The US has had some good presidents), and I was quite struck by his presence there. His famous clause “of the people, by the people, and for the people” came to mind. RDA had clearly established itself as an organisation of, by, and for the people.

It was also when we established our current vision and mission. The vision of addressing grand challenges as Augusto pointed out and the mission of building social and technical bridges to enable data sharing. The community was coming together around the common theme of bridge building.

For P3 we went to Dublin, Ireland for the “Australian” plenary (It was jointly hosted by Australia and Ireland). I had just recently been appointed Secretary General, and I felt like I was just getting my legs, but I don’t think I was the only one. I think the organisation was getting its legs too. 

We were really beginning to understand what we were doing and how to do it. For example, I remember a critical discussion in Council around “What is a social deliverable.” And now of course, we have several, and the concept continues to evolve.

P4 was in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. This was a milestone plenary. We presented our first deliverables: A small vocabulary,  draft models for describing data types and PID types, and some simple machine actionable rules. It was noteworthy and exciting that an international organisation had produced real and implementable things in only two years. 

To be honest, the deliverables were maybe a bit lackluster. It was hard to see how a persistent identifier type registry was going to change the world (it will!), but it was clear the organisation was getting its groove. We were operational and delivering.

P5 was in sunny San Diego, California, and was, perhaps, another milestone, because this is where we really saw adoption start to happen. There was an event prior to the official plenary called “adoption day” that brought together the current Working Groups and potential adopters for dynamic one-on-one discussions. It was very energetic and useful. 

RDA was showing maturity in other ways too. This is when we launched our “Future Directions” exercise — a strategic planning effort that laid out three-year plans for communications, engagement, and coordination in RDA. Council will be doing a mid-term assessment of how we are doing on that at their next meeting. 

P5 was also the first time I was asked to make opening remarks at a Plenary. I remarked that I had begun to see some themes emerge across all the different Working and Interest Groups that had emerged in our ongoing and rapid growth. (I actually had slides for this first effort.)

I noted three unifying themes that I think still help give us some focus. 

  1. PIDs are emerging as a central technology that reaches across almost all Working and Interest Groups. Sure, there are a lot of details to work out. But it’s clear that if you want a functional data infrastructure, then machines or computers need to unambiguously know what they are talking about.
  2. Certifying Trust in assertions, evidence, organisations, processes… how and whether to certify trust by whom? Does it need to be an authority or can there be certification by the “crowd”.
  3. The value of conversations, relationships, and mediation. Time and again, I am told that members value the community of RDA more than anything. But also that we are the connectors. The in-between people that connect the research and the data.

P6 was in Paris, France. This was a big one. Still our largest plenary to date. It showed that we were a real deal. There was a broad recognition that we were a player, and there was diverse, attendance from all levels.

It was also in Paris that for me the concept of trust emerged as a central and critical issue. Trust is central to data sharing, because data sharing is where that friction occurs, and therefore, where trust is prominent and essential. Trust also runs through how we operate as an organisation and interact with each other. 

I emphasized the need to share perspectives and be the bridge builders. And we need to be building bridges within our community as well as across systems and technologies. So talk to your colleagues even those (especially those) with whom you disagree. But also bring use cases and help us engage and build relationships with your discipline  and constituency. Not many dedicated researchers will attend this meeting, but we need to attend theirs. We are the in between people. The hybrids.

P7 was in Tokyo, Japan. Another milestone — the first plenary outside of a country bordering the  North Atlantic. It led to a significant growth in our Asian participation, and we need to continue to develop that.

And it made me really think about the value of the “glocal” concept I have been promoting. It is more than “think global/act local”. It means to play in both spaces at the same time. Local issues need to feed into the global and vice versa. And it’s not just geographically glocal but also glocal to disciplines.

The Agriculture Interest Group has always been good at this. And the rice data Working Group that emerged out of the Tokyo plenary  was rather emblematic of that. It was a logical extension to broaden the whate model to rice, which is much more important staple in Asia.

The most recent plenary, P8, was in Denver, USA as part of International Data Week. It was a big deal. It showed that we’re not just a player. We’re a leader. We were collaborating with two of the oldest, most venerable research data organisations in the world to pull off an unprecedented research data event.


So what can we take out of all that? What is the next level of maturity?

I’m not sure, but I know we need to be increasing consensus and building the professionalism of our field. We’ve shown we’re a community. Now we need to show some consensus. 

What is the core base of our infrastructure? What is our TCP/IP? We know it’s something around PIDs, but what exactly? We need to be careful not to overthink it. Often the “less perfect” solution wins, and you just have to ride with it. 

We need to have the basics down. Any organisation should be able to set up a basic data management system with a standard data naming, identification, and typing service as easy as they can set up an Apache web server. 

C’mon we can do this. Settle on the pretty good, so we can move on to more interesting things.

But, perhaps more importantly, we need to ask what is our core practice? We should be able to identify some core principles, if not specific practices, that are central to data stewardship and reuse. What are our first principles as a professional community? This social core might be harder, but again, I think it is very doable.  

Finally,  if I may be so bold, I will close with two pieces of advice:

First, don’t over think it

I talked a lot about trust. There is this concept called radical trust and we need to embrace radical trust — trust in collaboration, trust in your competitors and the general uncertainty.  It’s the “It will all work out” philosophy. I mentioned. Which is not to say it has been without friction, angst, tension, politics, and general disagreement, but yet it happens. We move forward, and you can’t oversteer. 

There’s a famous US philosopher who also played baseball for the NY Yankees, Yogi Berra. He said: “I can’t bat and think at the same time.”

Or perhaps more philosophically revealing… Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao-Te-Ching says "By letting go, it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go! But when you try and try, the world is then beyond the winning.” 

The key point is, don’t overthink it.

Second, Be the light!

We are a new and recognized and important community. Y’all should be proud of that. But it also brings professional responsibility.

At the Paris plenary, Axelle Lemaire, the French minister said that data was not the new oil but the new light. We need to shine that light brighter than ever!

The world, especially my country, the US, is seeing a shocking rise of anti-intellectualism, and a basic denial of verifiable facts over ideological beliefs. The age of enlightenment appears to be in decline.

It’s partly an issue of post-modern technology clashing with premodern ideology. So it’s good that we have several groups grappling with ethics in RDA.

But it’s also a simple poisoning of reason. It’s all very troubling, but as Paul Uhlir pointed out to me, it may also be an opportunity.

So we need to be professionals in our response — both factual and ethical. We need to emphasize the opportunity and optimism of RDA and not get into a defensive crouch. We must emphasize the benefits of data sharing, critical thinking, and evidence-based policy and reasoning. 

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and data is the new light.

At the same time, here at RDA, we can continue to debate rationally about reasoned matters including ways of knowing strange to us. But we must go forward!

I hope I do not offend, when I paraphrase Maya Angelou and say:

Like the dust,
We rise.
We rise.
We rise!


About the author

Related blogs


There are 0 comments on "Reflections on the Evolution of RDA".